The Milwaukee Fourteen: A Burning Protest against the Vietnam War

The Milwaukee 14 – 24 September 1968

Wisconsin Magazine of History / Winter 2017

By Tim Thering

On September 24, 1968, fourteen religiously motivated, anti-Vietnam war activists removed, or in their words, “liberated,” ten thousand draft records from the Milwaukee Selective Service office. The protesters, including five Catholic priests, hauled the draft files to a square in the middle of a busy Milwaukee throughway, poured what they called “homemade napalm” over records, and lit them on fire. The protesters gathered around the burning pyre, prayed, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”1 Their action sparked immediate controversy within the city of Milwaukee, which was still reeling from the Open Housing marches for fair housing that had ended just months before. Like much of the United States, Milwaukee was divided over Vietnam, but the stealing and burning of draft records was seen as a particularly pointed political act, far more serious than simply burning one’s own selective service papers.2 The Fourteen anticipated the reaction their protest might ignite, but they hoped it would inspire others to similar radical action. As they declared: “Our action is not an end in itself.”3

For the Fourteen, the burning of draft records was not simply a protest born of frustration at an ineffective political system. They saw the action as a “prophetic witness” that would counteract the passivity and silence of the Catholic Church. They also hoped to turn the public eye toward the excesses of war spending, as they believed the money could be better used at home to fight poverty and racial inequality. All were aware of the possible outcomes and saw their action as an example of taking responsibility and suffering the consequences—something they believed the country had not done in Vietnam. As Father Lawrence Rosebaugh wrote just hours before the protest, “We stand as witnesses to ask our government and all fellow men to come to grips seriously with our actions in Vietnam.”4 Largely forgotten today, the Milwaukee Fourteen stand as examples of radical resistance, motivated not simply by political fervor but also by religious conviction.

Losing Faith in Politics

Nineteen sixty-eight was a tumultuous year. In late January, the American public was shocked when Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched the Tet Offensive, attacking thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities in South Vietnam, including Saigon. Americans had been repeatedly assured by military and political leaders that an end to the war was in sight, but Tet undermined this. Walter Cronkite, the trusted anchor of the CBS Evening News, asserted that the US effort was stalemated.”5 By March 10, a Gallup poll revealed that almost half of the nation believed sending troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.6

With the public turning against the war and President Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating plummeting, many concerned citizens turned to the political process as a way to end US involvement in the conflict. On March 12, 1968, Senator Eugene McCarthy, running on an antiwar platform, came in a close second to President Johnson in the New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary. Thousands of young antiwar activists were willing to “Get Clean for Gene.” On March 16, after McCarthy’s strong showing, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race as a peace candidate on the Democratic ticket. Two weeks later, President Johnson addressed the nation and announced that he was temporarily halting the bombing of North Vietnam. Then he declared: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president.”7

With two viable antiwar candidates competing for the Democratic nomination, the early spring of 1968 seemed to promise change in Vietnam. But hopes for peace were soon shattered by violence on the home front. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., the most famous opponent of the war and the strongest advocate of nonviolent civil disobedience and civil rights, was assassinated in Memphis.

As cities across the nation erupted in violence upon the news of Dr. King’s death, Milwaukee remained calm. Father James Groppi, speaking for members of the NAACP Youth Council, stated they were “sad and bitter” over King’s murder, but there was no rioting in Milwaukee.8 The Youth Council’s Open Housing marches campaign, two hundred nights of marching on the city’s south side from August 1967 to March 1968, had proven that nonviolent civil disobedience was still a possible and relevant means to achieve civil rights.9 Now, thirteen thousand Milwaukeeans marched solemnly through the city to mourn and honor the slain martyr of peace. Michael Cullen, one of the principal organizers of the Milwaukee Fourteen, participated in this silent vigil. Cullen praised his fellow Catholic and good friend Father Groppi for gaining the respect of African Americans in Milwaukee in advising the NAACP Youth Council during the marches. “The only white man the black man will recognize is one who has become black,” said Cullen. “Jim [Father Groppi] has done that. He bears witness daily with his body.” According to Cullen, the respect Father Groppi earned within the Milwaukee African American community helped him to “cool riot situations.”10

In contrast, campuses across the country erupted. An estimated one million college and high school students participated in the National Strike against War, Racism, and the Draft on April 26, 1968.11 According to the Milwaukee underground magazine Kaleidoscope, “40% of the student body boycotted classes” at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.12 Instead, over three thousand students attended a talk by Muhammad Ali. A year earlier, Ali had refused induction into the armed forces, and he was facing up to five years in prison for his draft resistance.13 At UW–Milwaukee, students engaged in guerrilla theater to register their disapproval of the war and the draft. Members of the Demilitarized Zone Mime Troupe set up a sacrificial altar “to the God, LBJ” on campus.14 The organizers burned dolls on the altar “as a mock representation of children being napalmed by Christian Americans.”15 One young woman offered up her bra to burn while other students threw draft cards, social security cards, and bus passes onto the fire. The Milwaukee Organizing Committee (MOC) organized a protest outside the Federal Building on the same day, joined by members of Marquette’s Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and thirty students from Riverside High School. From the Federal Building, the roughly two hundred protesters marched to City Hall.16

By the summer of 1968, tensions were at a high. Then in June, right after delivering his victory speech upon winning the California Democratic primary, Senator Bobby Kennedy was gunned down. The Democratic Convention held in Chicago that August devolved into chaos. When a majority of delegates to the convention selected as their presidential nominee Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not run in a single Democratic Party primary, bedlam ensued both within and outside the hall of the convention. Delegates committed to Senator McCarthy, and many of those pledged to the assassinated Kennedy, felt betrayed by the establishment. Fistfights broke out between delegates on the convention floor. Outside the convention hall, antiwar activists attempted to march from Grant Park to the Hilton. On Michigan Avenue, the protesters met a wall of Chicago police. Rather than hold  the line, the police waded into the ranks of the marchers and started swinging. With news of the alleged police riot trickling into the convention hall, Senator Abraham Ribicoff, who was in the midst of nominating Senator George McGovern as a peace alternative to Humphrey, went off script and declared that if George McGovern was president, “We wouldn’t have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago.” A seething Mayor Richard Daley purportedly shouted back at Senator Ribicoff: “F–k you, you Jew son of a bitch.”17 The hope of peace through politics died that night in Chicago.

A month later, having lost faith in the political process, the Milwaukee Fourteen took action against this backdrop of racial and civil unrest. For inspiration, they looked to a protest carried out by religious activists a few months before. On May 17, 1968, nine Catholic activists, including Father Daniel Berrigan and Father Philip Berrigan, broke into the draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. The protesters grabbed 378 daft files, took them to the parking lot, poured homemade napalm over the files, and then ignited a roaring blaze.18 The Milwaukee Fourteen timed their action to draw attention to the upcoming trial of the Catonsville Nine. Like the Catonsville Nine, their protest and the subsequent trials garnered national attention. But it did not stay on the national radar for long, overshadowed by an ever-shifting news cycle and then forgotten by historians, who tend to focus on the bigger and seemingly more contentious protests held on the UW–Madison campus. In fact, religious opposition to the war, especially among Catholic radicals, was a crucial part of the antiwar movement. The protest in Milwaukee demonstrates the reach of this wing of the antiwar movement— right into the sacred heart of the heartland.

Motivations of the Milwaukee Fourteen

Unlike many who protested against the Vietnam War, the Milwaukee Fourteen viewed their action not only as a political act but also as a religious one. Notre Dame’s Scholastic magazine interviewed Michael Cullen as the main organizer of the action and asked him what the main difference between a Christian radical and a secular radical was. Cullen responded: “Where some of us break with SDS in tactics is that we go far beyond a political point of view. Christ goes much deeper than the political. The 14 stood around to accept the consequences of what we did. That’s something that political people can’t understand.”19 When asked why he was inspired to translate his religious beliefs into radical action, Cullen said: “I just couldn’t stand by. . . . If you meditate long on the child destroyed by napalm in Vietnam, tears will fill in your eyes very fast. It’s like meditating on the stripping of Christ.”20

Vatican II also called the Milwaukee Fourteen to action. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical letter Pacem in Terris (1963) and Vatican II documents such as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) convinced them that the Church and Pope were summoning Catholics to work for peace and to oppose unjust wars. For the Milwaukee Fourteen, the problem was not with recent popes or the changing church in Rome, but rather with the US Catholic hierarchy that did not seem to get the memo.21 In a not-so-subtle dig at the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, Father Groppi compared the Milwaukee Fourteen’s actions “to Christ’s overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple.”22

In 1964, Jim Forest, one of the Fourteen, helped found the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF). Forest envisioned that the CPF would become the Catholic version of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the main Protestant pacifist group in the United States since World War I. FOR assisted Forest in establishing the CPF. Early in its existence, the CPF lobbied behind the scenes with other Catholic groups at Vatican II to encourage the council to issue a statement legitimizing the right of Catholics to conscientiously object to unjust wars. Vatican II did just that, which proved to be crucial in allowing young Catholics in the United States to claim conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. Jim Forest and other members of the CPF spent much of their time telling young Catholic men that they had this option and walking them through the process of how to achieve CO status.23

Father Lawrence Rosebaugh, a Milwaukee Catholic priest and Milwaukee Fourteen member, also joined the draft burning for religious reasons. He said he participated “because Christianity wasn’t moving like a Movement should.”24 Father Rosebaugh saw himself as a prophetic witness. Hours before the draft burning, he wrote: “I have become a tool to be worked on and molded. I am being made into something beautiful that others from me can share the gift bestowed upon me. . . . We stand as witnesses to ask our government and all fellow men to come to grips seriously with our actions in Vietnam.25 To these radical Catholics, witnessing did not mean standing on the sidelines and observing—to witness demanded action. If the action had consequences, the group would stand and take them.

Most of the Milwaukee Fourteen were also veterans or supporters of the Catholic Worker movement and disciples of Dorothy Day. In addition to leading the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Jim Forest edited the Catholic Worker. Michael Cullen opened up Casa Maria in Milwaukee, a Catholic Worker home for the homeless. Cullen and Bob Graf founded and co-edited the Catholic Radical, a local Catholic Worker newspaper in Milwaukee, and Father Rosebaugh opened the Living Room, a daytime drop-in center for the city’s homeless. For the Milwaukee Fourteen, their work with the homeless, poor, and minorities convinced them that money spent on the war in Vietnam should rather be spent on the War on Poverty at home. Like Martin Luther King Jr., they believed the government’s priorities were immoral. Cullen stated: “It was Dan [Berrigan] who impressed me, overwhelmed me by his person, and his style, who tied poverty and the war together for me. When I learned about the Catonsville 9, I simply had to take off. I had to act.”26

The Milwaukee Fourteen were also inspired by the 1967 to 1968 civil rights struggle for fair housing. Local members of the Fourteen, like Graf and Cullen, had participated in at least some of the two hundred nights of marching for open housing in Milwaukee. However, until they drew the connections between civil rights, poverty, and the war, most had not wanted a role on the front line of protest. Cullen explained: “Even though I had walked in the Groppi demonstrations and was somewhat involved in the civil rights movement, for the most part I was withdrawn. I could hardly be called a protestor or a radical.”27 Similar to the criticisms Dr. King faced when he came out against the war, the Fourteen had a difficult time explaining even to those who shared their concerns about civil rights and helping the poor how the war was connected. “As I began to speak about the war,” Cullen remembered, “people began to think I was more concerned with peace than I was concerned with the poor. But being concerned with the poor is the heart of peacemaking.”28

Previous Antiwar Activities

Although most of the Fourteen were motivated by religious convictions, there is no doubt they also interpreted the event as a political act. All of the Milwaukee Fourteen had already been active in the antiwar movement. It was their frustration that conventional civil disobedience had achieved so little in ending the war and ending the draft that motivated them to up the ante. Father Anthony Mullaney, a Catholic priest from Massachusetts and a Milwaukee Fourteen member, elaborated on the personal journey that led him to believe he had no other option. Mullaney had concluded that US involvement in Vietnam was wrong five years earlier, long before President Johnson sent combat troops. His opposition took the form of traditional protest within the law. He wrote letters, signed petitions, gave talks, preached sermons and “even risked a march or two.”29 According to a pamphlet put out by the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund, Father Mullaney and Father Robert Cunnane, another Massachusetts priest who participated, had “gone through the proper channels.”30 They had even “appeared in groups at the White House, at the Senate, [and] at the House of Representatives” to plead with politicians to end the hostilities and “divert needed funds to the urban crises.”31 But their words and actions had come to naught. According to the priests, “some [politicians] even agreed with them—privately—but told them they could do nothing for them.”32

Father Cunnane helped found the Boston Committee for Religious Concern for peace. On October 16, 1967, Father Cunnane had spoken at the Arlington Street Church protest in Boston, where a couple hundred draft cards were turned in. Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician who changed the way Americans raised its children with his bestseller Baby and Child Care, and the Reverend William Coffin, the longtime civil rights and peace activist, would later be tried on charges of conspiracy for “returning” these draft cards to the Justice Department during the 1967 March on the Pentagon protests.33 Under Selective Service rules, young men registered for the draft needed to keep possession of their draft card at all times. Doug Marvy, the only Jewish member of the group, counseled young men on how to avoid the draft. Two others, Fred Ojile and the Reverend Jon Higgenbotham, a minister of the Founding Church of Scientology and the Church of American Science, were draft counselors in Minnesota.

Milwaukee members of the Fourteen had also been active against the war before the draft burning. Michael Cullen held a ten-day fast and vigil to draw attention to the immorality of the war at Milwaukee’s Saint John’s Cathedral in the spring of 1967. Cullen later reflected that the fast dramatically changed him: “I returned a different man. My life had taken a drastic turn.”34 On Good Friday of that year, Cullen left the cathedral and, with a small group of followers, carried a large crucifix from Saint John’s to Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church on Milwaukee’s south side. The group hoped that Catholics would remember what “the Prince of Peace” had sacrificed his flesh for.35 Just two days before the draft burning, Cullen, Jerry Gardner, and Bob Graf joined another protest at Saint John’s Cathedral. About a dozen protesters rushed the altar during Sunday mass. Father Nicholas Riddell, a priest from Saint Boniface Catholic Church (the church of civil rights activist Father James Groppi), then attempted to read a statement condemning the US Catholic Church for its silence on the war.36

All of this previous antiwar activity had convinced the Fourteen that something more drastic had to be done. Father Mullaney explained: “In order to be heard in a society where all ‘legal’ means of protest had been exhausted by us, where our right to free speech had been rendered ineffective, where all the words—such as peace, freedom—had been preempted by the government, where so many of us had become dulled by the long years of war and violence . . . we turned over the ‘golden calf’ of property [draft records].”37 The Milwaukee Fourteen knew that destruction of such “property” would likely lead to imprisonment and prosecution. Anticipating the charges, they had a ready answer in a statement they passed out to the press at the time of the action. “Today we destroy Selective Service System files because men need to be reminded that property is not sacred. . . . If anything tangible is sacred, it is the gift of life and flesh.” The Catholic radicals went on to decry the destruction of life not only in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, but in Latin America, Africa, and “Harlem, Delano, and wherever the poor live and die.” “Property” such as draft records could be used by any tyrannical regime or individual against life: “the gas ovens in Germany, concentration camps in Russia, occupation tanks in Czechoslovakia, pieces of paper in draft offices, slum holdings, factories of death machines.” Tying themselves to the American past, the Milwaukee Fourteen reminded the nation that the country did not dwell on the destruction of property when celebrating the Boston Tea Party.38

The Action

Although the Milwaukee Fourteen described burning the draft records as prophetic witness, they did not want to bear witness in the wilderness. As Michael Cullen put it at his trial, “the act belonged to the public.”39 Media savvy and yet cautious about tipping off law enforcement, the Milwaukee Fourteen arranged for reporters, photographers, and a film crew to be on hand, with the media not knowing exactly what the action would be or where it would take place. John Hagedorn, a member of the Milwaukee Organizing Committee, contacted the local media, telling them an event would take place on September 24 that might produce a story of “national headline importance.”40 Hagedorn met the media in a parking lot several blocks from the event and then had the group caravan to another parking lot. Hagedorn went up to the end of the block, ran back, handed out the press releases, and shouted: “Go to the corner. There’s your story.”41

By the time reporters arrived, the group was dragging draft records from the Selective Service offices in the Brumder Building to a small park across Wells Street, placing the sacks beneath a World War I memorial flagpole honoring fallen soldiers. At 5:55 p.m., Jerry Gardner, a Marquette graduate student and lifelong Milwaukee resident, and Don Cotton, co-chair of SDS at Saint Louis University, poured the homemade napalm over the draft records. Once the papers were soaked, Gardner and Doug Marvy set them ablaze.42 The deed done, the Fourteen gathered together in a supportive embrace and waited to be arrested, singing the Lord’s Prayer and reading scripture as fire trucks wailed in the distance.43 As the records continued to burn, a few pedestrians stopped to observe. Others did a quick double take and kept on walking. Michael Kirkhorn, a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal, began asking people walking by for their response. An older man, hearing the prayers and seeing the clerical collars of the priests as they gathered around the burning draft records, “muttered, “I bet they never read any scripture.” One young man exclaimed hopefully, “Maybe they got [my record].”44

By 6:04 p.m., firemen had extinguished the fire with some draft records still blowing in the wind.45 Cullen gave a short speech as the firemen raked the embers: “We love all of you who are putting out the fire. We have done this because we love America. We believe America has done wrong in Vietnam.”46 By this point, the police had arrived and began gently pushing the Fourteen toward the patrol wagons. The protesters offered no resistance, nor did the police officers use much force or even seem to be in a hurry as they made their arrests. By 6:15, all the Fourteen were in the patrol wagons heading for the Milwaukee County Safety Building. By the time the police had hauled the group away, around one hundred Milwaukee bystanders bore witness to the action.

While gathered around the burning records waiting for the police, Father Anthony Mullaney, reading from Luke 12:51, underscored how the Fourteen viewed their action as a baptism by fire: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is over. Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the world? Not peace, I tell you, but division.”47 And divide, the Milwaukee Fourteen did.

Response to the Milwaukee Fourteen

The day after the protest, the Milwaukee County Council of the Democratic Party passed a unanimous resolution condemning the mass draft burning. As the resolution was being introduced, several members began shouting “Shoot ’em.”48 Underscoring the heat of the times, the local Democratic Party also passed at the meeting a resolution praising Chicago Mayor Richard Daley for his actions the previous month against antiwar protesters at the national convention. This vitriol was not unexpected.

The Milwaukee Democratic Party of the 1960s was dominated by and represented the interests of the city’s white, blue-collar Catholic residents, especially those working-class voters of eastern and southern European ancestry residing on the city’s south side. These white ethnic workers had supported the Democratic Party since the New Deal. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the Democratic Party had helped them achieve a lower middle-class lifestyle with unions (the Wagner Act), homes (FHA loans and the GI Bill), and dignity in retirement (Social Security and Medicare). However, by the mid-1960s, many working-class Milwaukeeans began to feel forgotten. Even though many of LBJ’s Great Society programs continued to improve their lives, they resented the increasing focus on alleviating poverty and support for civil rights.

Many white working-class Milwaukeeans believed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 threatened their economic security and their modest homes. The ardent segregationist of Alabama, Governor George Wallace, won 34 percent of the vote in the 1964 Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in large part due to his support on the south side of Milwaukee. He told these former bulwarks of liberalism that the ”civil wrongs bill” would mean the death of labor unions and private property.49 At a Wallace campaign rally at Serb Hall on the city’s south side in 1964, the crowd serenaded the southern segregationist governor with a verse of “Dixie” sung in Polish. At the same rally, two African American protesters who refused to stand for the national anthem were forced out of the hall with shouts of “Send Them Back to Africa.”50 Wallace claimed afterward: “If I ever had to leave Alabama, I’d want to live on the south side of Milwaukee.”51 Despite a peaceful intent, the Open Housing marches and further actions by the NAACP Youth Council only inflamed these racial hatreds further. The marchers, whose route took them to Kosciuszko Park on the south side, faced thousands of hostile counter protesters. With signs such as “Polish Power,” a cardboard casket marked “Groppi, Rest in Hell,” and chants of “kill, kill, kill,” the counter demonstrators unleashed their anger at those who simply wanted the right to choose where they lived.52

Within this cauldron of racial tension, the Milwaukee Fourteen’s action added fuel to the fire among the city’s ethnic working class. Although the war was not necessarily popular among these white blue-collar voters, they despised the protests and protesters—whom they associated with civil rights marchers—even more. It was their sons who were being sacrificed in Vietnam, and they resented college kids, and now even Catholic priests, telling them that their sons had died or might die for an unjust cause.

Republicans also quickly condemned the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen. State Senator Robert Warren, a Republican running for state attorney general on a law-and-order platform that mimicked Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, blasted the burning as “brazen anarchy.”53 Republican vice-presidential candidate Spiro Agnew, campaigning on the south side of Milwaukee just four days after the burning of the draft records, hammered home the slogan of law and order. Agnew, in a conscious attempt to peel these voters away from George Wallace’s third-party presidential campaign, fed the crowd red meat. He started out by declaring that the country was in a “moral crisis” and needed “moral leadership.” But, he claimed, “a president is not a clergyman, and I may say to you in Milwaukee that neither is a clergyman a president.”54 The crowd erupted in sustained applause. Everyone at the rally knew that Agnew was referring to the Milwaukee Fourteen and Father Groppi.

The Milwaukee Journal, considered the liberal newspaper of Milwaukee’s two dailies, ran an editorial that decried the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen as “inexcusable hooliganism.” Challenging the protesters’ adherence to pacifism and nonviolence, the Journal editors proclaimed that instead “they defiled the pacifist traditions of Thoreau and Gandhi.” According to the Journal, the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen “were more reminiscent of the ruffians of the Pennsylvania whiskey rebellion.”55 The next day, the Milwaukee Journal ran a front-page editorial cartoon that compared the Milwaukee Fourteen to the John Birch Society, the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and Vietnam War hawks, arguing that they were “pious fanatics” who believed “the end justifies any means.”56

Although the immediate local response overwhelmingly condemned the draft burning a few championed it. Father Groppi called the Fourteen “saints . . . who performed a tremendous act of courage.” He contrasted the group’s bravery to the “silence of the church hierarchy”  on the war in Vietnam.57 Groppi also questioned the Milwaukee Journal’s decision to refer to the burning of the draft records as “hooliganism.” “What do they call the war in Vietnam?” he demanded to know.58 Father Groppi would soon become co-chair of the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund, which raised money for bail and legal fees.

To show support for the Milwaukee Fourteen, Father Groppi and comedian Dick Gregory organized a solidarity march. On October 1, 1968, 150 people gathered to listen to speeches supporting the Fourteen at Saint Boniface Catholic Church. Lawrence Friend, president of the Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, denounced the Vietnam War as a “white man’s war” and called on African Americans to resist the draft. From Saint Boniface, Father Groppi and the supporters marched to Marquette University, where Dick Gregory gave a two-hour talk. After his talk, a group of five hundred, mainly Marquette students and a few NAACP Youth Council members, marched to the Milwaukee County Safety Building where the Milwaukee

Aftermath: Flames and Ashes

Whether they were trying to put on a brave front or they really wanted to go to prison to serve as an example, all of the Milwaukee Fourteen ended up serving at least a year in prison for their actions. After serving his time, Cullen, an Irish immigrant, also suffered deportation. Even though Cullen’s wife, Annette (Nettie), had been born and raised in Wisconsin, she and the children accompanied him to Ireland. Cullen would not be allowed to return to the United States until 1991.61 Bob Graf, Jerry Gardner, Fred Ojile, and Doug Marvy each missed the birth of a child while they served their sentences.

After his federal trial in March 1970, Cullen testified that he acted with full knowledge of the potential consequences: “I did what I did lest I be judged not a man but a coward. I did what I did even though I knew I jeopardized my wife’s future and my children.”62 Cullen’s macho stance quickly faded after only three months in prison. Considering his public statements and his long commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, his letter to Federal Judge Gordon would no doubt shock some of his supporters, but reveals that Michael Cullen, like all of us, was more human than saint:

“My reason for writing at this time is to beg you for mercy—help lighten my sentence . . .

I beg you. My wife and three children are having a terrible time—I really mean that. And it is not just financial but emotionally as well . . . I am willing to be put under surveillance by the federal government for whatever time they deem necessary. Please help us judge. Please. I promise to be a good citizen. This has been my first offense and I promise it will be my last.”63

Although personally costly for the men, the actions of the Milwaukee Fourteen did have immediate results. As Jim Forest explained decades later, “For starters, it closed down conscription for a time in a major US city. In Milwaukee for several months the only people who were sent to the war were volunteers.”64 It also inspired others. On May 25, 1969, protesters organized a mass draft record burning in Chicago, timed to draw national attention to the trial of the Milwaukee Fourteen.65 The Chicago protesters, who became known as the Chicago Fifteen, burned even more draft records than the Milwaukee Fourteen—some 40,000.66 One of those arrested was Milwaukee’s own Father Nicolas Riddell. Richard Zipfel, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee, told the media that the Fourteen were “overjoyed and delighted” that their action had encouraged others to take nonviolent direct action against the war machine.67

However,  the Milwaukee Fourteen were dismayed when violence was employed by those who wanted to bring the war home. On September 28, 1969, the Federal Building  in Milwaukee was bombed—almost a year to the day of the Milwaukee Fourteen action.68 In a statement to the press, Cullen lamented the bombing: “I would like to make clear that I was very saddened by this happening since it was undoubtedly perpetrated by persons who have a real concern for the welfare of this society but who, in their eagerness for change, have overstepped the limitations of non-violence. I feel that such an act . . . will only create more fear.”69 Cullen explained that he would begin a fast “as penance for this act since I may well have inspired it.”

Whether viewed as saints or hooligans, the Milwaukee Fourteen deserve to be remembered. The burning of the draft records and the various responses to it are part of our collective history—indeed, part of Wisconsin history. For better or worse, the Milwaukee Fourteen ignited a firestorm whose flames have not been completely extinguished.

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About the author: Tim Thering is an associate professor of history at University of Wisconsin–Waukesha where he teaches a course on the Vietnam War. He is a past recipient of the UW–Colleges Chancellor’s Award for his contributions commemorating the Milwaukee Open Housing Marches. In 2016, he served as co-chair of the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. The author would like to thank Marquette archivist Phil Runkel for his research assistance and Margaret (Peggy) Rozga for encouraging him to tell the story of the Milwaukee Fourteen.

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Notes

  1. “Statement for Issuance while Awaiting Arrest for the Destruction of Milwaukee Draft Records,” September 24, 1968, Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Committee Records, 1968– 1971, Wisconsin Historical Society Area Research Center Archives, Golda Meier Library, UW–Milwaukee; “The Milwaukee Fourteen: Hypothesis, Perspective,” Kaleidoscope (Milwaukee) 1, no. 24 (1968): 5.
  2. Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance during the Vietnam War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 3–16; Charles DeBenedetti, An American Ordeal: The Antiwar Movement of the Vietnam Era (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 128–130.
  3. “Statement for Issuance.”
  4. Father Larry Rosebaugh, “This Is How I See It,” September 24, 1968, Michael Denis Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1, Special Collections and University Archives, Raynor Memorial Libraries, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (hereafter Cullen Papers).
  5. Robert Mann, A Grand Delusion: America’s Descent into Vietnam (New York: Basic Books, 2002), 574–575.
  6. Forty-nine percent of those polled said it was a mistake, 41 percent said it was not, and 10 percent had no opinion. George Gallop, ed., The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 1935–1971, Vol. 3 (New York: Random House, 1972), 2109.
  7. Charles E. Neu, America’s Lost War, Vietnam: 1945-1975 (Wheeling, IL: Harlan Davidson, 2005), 142.
  8. “Wisconsin Leaders Mourn Dr. King,” Madison Capital Times, April 5, 1968.
  9. For histories of the 1967/1968 Milwaukee Open Housing marches, see Patrick D. Jones, Selma of the North: Civil Rights Insurgency in Milwaukee (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) and Margaret Rozga, “March On Milwaukee,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 90, no. 4 (Summer 2007): 28–39.
  10. “Milwaukee Priest Long Known as Advocate of Non-Violence,” The Ontario Daily Report, May 22, 1968.
  11. “Student Strike Succeeds,” Kaleidoscope 1, no. 14 (1968): 2; “LBJ Sacrificial Altar,” Kaleidoscope 1, no. 14 (1968): 5.
  12. “Student Strike Succeeds.”
  13. “Pugilist Poet Preacher Muhammad Has Stage,” Wisconsin State Journal, April 27, 1968.
  14. “LBJ Sacrificial Altar.”
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Testimony of Richard Joseph Daley, Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial, University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law Famous Trials website, accessed at http://www.famoustrials.com/chicago8/1322-daley.
  18. For the definitive study of the Catonsville Nine, see Shawn Francis Peters, The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  19. “Violence in Search of Peace: An Interview with Michael Cullen,” Scholastic (Notre Dame), May 9, 1969.
  20. “Fast Nourishes Protester,” Milwaukee Journal, March 25, 1967.
  21. Penelope Adams Moon, “‘Peace on Earth—Peace in Vietnam’: The Catholic Peace Fellowship and Antiwar Witness, 1964–1976,” Journal of Social History (Summer 2003): 1037.
  22. “Government Rests Case; 16 Testify for Cullen,” unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  23. Moon., 1038–1040.
  24. Francine du Plessix Gray, “The Ultra-Resistance,” New York Review of Books, September 25, 1969.
  25. Father Larry Rosebaugh, “This Is How I See It.”
  26. “Rough Draft for a Brochure on Michael Cullen,” n.d., mimeograph copy, Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid.
  29. Anthony Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests Involved in a Federal Trial?” n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  30. Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund (Boston Area), “Peace on Earth . . . Good Will toward Men,” pamphlet, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  31. Milwaukee Fourteen Defense Fund (Boston Area), “Yes—But Why Didn’t They Go through the Proper Channels?” pamphlet, n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 2.
  32. Ibid.
  33. Foley, Confronting the War Machine, 225–233.
  34. “Rough Draft for a Brochure on Michael Cullen.”
  35. “March on Good Friday Protests Vietnam War,” Milwaukee Journal, March 25, 1967.
  36. Eugene Horn, “Archbishop Describes Protest at Cathedral as ‘Disgraceful’ Action,” Catholic Herald (Milwaukee), September 28, 1968.
  37. Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests.”
  38. “Statement for Issuance.”
  39. “Draft Building ‘Cased’ for Weeks, Cullen Says,” Milwaukee Sentinel, March 21, 1970.
  40. “Intermediary Leads Newsmen to Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968; “How Press Was Taken to Scene,” Milwaukee Sentinel, September 26, 1969.
  41. “Intermediary Leads Newsmen to Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  42. “War Protestors Give Statement,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  43. “Milwaukee 14 Demonstrators Lead the News Crew to a Fire of Burning Draft Records,” September 24, 1968, Milwaukee Journal Stations Records, WTMJ-TV News Film Archives, Wisconsin Historical Society Area Research Center, Golda Meier Library, UW–Milwaukee.
  44. “Selective Service Office Invaded, Records Burned,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  45. “War Protestors Give Statement.”
  46. “Milwaukee 14 Demonstrators,” WTMJ-TV News Film Archives.
  47. Ibid.
  48. “Democratic Council Blasts Draft Protest,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  49. Richard Haney, “Wallace in Wisconsin: The Presidential Primary of 1964,” Wisconsin Magazine of History 61, no. 4 (Summer 1978): 268.
  50. Ibid., 270–271.
  51. “Dixie North: George Wallace and the 1964 Wisconsin Presidential Primary,” Sheppard Express (Milwaukee), December 22, 2015.
  52. Rozga, “March on Milwaukee,” 34–35.
  53. “Draft Record Burning Blasted as Anarchy,” Milwaukee Journal, September 25, 1968.
  54. “Agnew Visits Milwaukee,” Eau Claire Leader, September 29, 1968.
  55. “Inexcusable Hooliganism,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  56. “The Gospel according to Pious Fanatics,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  57. “Protestors Compared to Saints by Groppi,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  58. Ibid.
  59. “March Supports Draft Protestors,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968; “Gregory Addresses Crowd at Marquette,” Milwaukee Journal, September 26, 1968.
  60. Mullaney, “Why Are Three Boston Priests.” Mullaney’s 3,000 is in contrast to the Milwaukee Journal’s report of 500.
  61. “Once Deported, Irishman Takes Oath,” The Capital Times, March 20, 2001.
  62. “Defense Based on Religious Belief Fails; Cullen Guilty of Card Burning,” Catholic Herald Citizen (Milwaukee), March 28, 1970.
  63. Letter from Michael Cullen to Judge Gordon, August 12, 1970, Cullen Papers, Series 5, Box 1.
  64. Jim Forest, “Looking Back on the Milwaukee 14,” March 3, 2006, blog post, accessed at http://jimandnancyforest.com/2006/03/looking-back-on-the-milwaukee-14/.
  65. There were two trials for the Milwaukee Fourteen. Michael Cullen was tried alone due to his immigrant status, Jerry Gardner pleaded guilty and had no trial, and the other twelve had a combined trial. The Chicago action was an attempt to draw attention to the latter.
  66. Gray, “The Ultra-Resistance.”
  67. “Dedicated to the ‘Milwaukee 14’: 18 Arrested in Chicago Draft Data Burning Protest,” Capital Times (Madison), May 26, 1969.
  68. “Violence Rapped by the Milwaukee 14,” Rhinelander Daily News, September 30, 1969.
  69. Michael Cullen, “Statement Concerning the Bombing of the Federal Bldg.,” n.d., Cullen Papers, Series 1 Box 1.

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